I needed to get to work soon. I glanced at my phone to check the time, just as I saw Tex put the gear handle down. I heard the familiar whir of the hydraulic gear pump, but I felt an abnormal shimmy in the airframe. I knew then that we had a problem, and I dropped my phone back into my shirt pocket.
There was a thud, which wasn’t quite the thud we normally heard when the landing gear locked into position. I turned my head to look for the green safe light, and it didn’t illuminate. Tex tapped on the bulb and then pressed it to test the bulb. It illuminated, but would not stay lit.
I looked out my window, and did not see a wheel.
“Put them up and back down,” I said.
Tex put the gear handle back up and the gear pump whirred. Kerthunk, and the amber gear-up light illuminated. He put the handle back down, and the pump whirred again, followed by half of a kerthunk. The green light didn’t come on, despite my mental urging.
I didn’t need to look out my window but did anyway. The right main landing gear was clearly not going to come down.
“OK, let’s go gear up, climb power, and fly north of the field. I’ll run the emergency gear extension procedure,” I told Tex.
Tex flew the plane away from the airport and I struggled to pull out the manual gear pump lever between our seats. The damn thing wouldn’t budge and I felt some panic set in. I calmed myself, slid my seat back and ducked down closer to the floor. Finally, I got the catch to release and the handle pulled out.
I pulled the gear circuit breaker, put the gear handle in the down position and began pumping. I counted the strokes, although the handle felt dead and limp in my hands. After 20 pumps, I began to feel some resistance. Then more, and at 30 strokes, felt significant resistance, and at 35, the handle wouldn’t move any more.
The green light didn’t illuminate. The right landing gear was still not down, just as I knew it would not be.
Tex pulled out the checklist and we re-read the procedure to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I hadn’t.
I called Clemson Unicom on the radio. There was no answer. I texted Randy, the mechanic. He didn’t reply.
We circled north of the airport for a few minutes, and I said, “Well, hell.”
Tex chuckled and said, “Well, hell, indeed.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes, then Tex said, “We could go in the back and pull up the inspection covers.”
I thought of a Lancair crash in Darlington a few years ago. They couldn’t get the gear down and had crashed into a smoldering heap, apparently because they had been so distracted by trying to pry up inspection covers that they had forgotten to fly the plane.
“No. Let’s fly the plane,” I said. “If we can’t get it down through normal procedures, we’ll land gear up. The insurance is paid up, isn’t it?”
“Oh yeah,” said Tex.
I called Randy on my phone and he answered. Through the noise I told him the right gear wouldn’t come down, and the call dropped.
In moments, he came up on the radio and we told him what we had tried so far. He asked for a low pass, and I gave him one with the gear up and one with the gear down.
“It’s stuck about halfway down and does not seem to be moving,” Randy told us through the radio.
“You might try going back up and pulling some G’s to see if that might change anything,” he added.
We climbed back to the north, and I asked Randy to get Jeff, the airport manager, on the radio. I told him we needed to think about where and how to land it.
As we climbed, Randy and I debated whether it was better to land with the gear up or with just two down. He was worried that the trailing left gear was jammed in that position and would cause the landing to be less controlled if we landed with the gear up. I was worried that the plane could cartwheel when it came down on the right wing if we landed with the gear down.
Back at altitude, I swooped the plane down and pulled back up with the gear down. I tried swooping and pulling while actuating the gear. I watched in the gear mirror and saw that the right gear just hung limply in trail.
Jeff, the airport manager, came on the radio, and I told him what was going on. “Where should we land it?” I asked.
Jeff said that we should do whatever we thought was safest, but the he said that he had an idea he wanted us to think about.
“How much fuel do you have?”
Tex and I did some figuring and agreed that we had more than two hours on board.
“Good. I wonder if you might want to fly over to Donaldson and land there. They have foam trucks and equipment right on the field.”
I said that was a great idea.
“Just call them if you want to do it,” Jeff replied.
I asked Jeff if he would mind making the call, so we didn’t have to explain everything over the radio.
“Be glad to. Standby.”
We circled and debated the best way to land. Gear up seemed to be the safest way, we agreed. Surely the weight of the aircraft would crush the trailing gear leg if it was jammed.
Jeff’s voice crackled over the radio. “Two Zero Charlie Uniform from Clemson Unicom.”
“Two Zero Charlie Uniform,” I answered.
“They’re ready for y’all over at Donaldson. Just call the tower. Good luck guys, I know y’all will be fine.”
I thanked Jeff and dialed GYH into the old GPS, and knew it would be the last time it would navigate anywhere in this plane. The course indicator centered and I turned the plane to a heading of 089 degrees.
Tex brought up ForeFlight in his iPhone. set it up to navigate to Donaldson, and held it up for me to see. The miles ticked by slowly, it seemed.
I told Tex that his job was to call out the procedure and make sure I did them to the letter. I had caught myself making mistakes and taking shortcuts already, and there was no margin for that.
I called the tower when the old dot-matrix GPS display showed 20 miles. There was a delay and then they answered.
“Cutlass Two Zero Charlie Uniform, say number of souls and fuel on board.
“Zero Charlie Uniform has two souls on board and two hours of fuel remaining,” I replied.
“Zero Charlie Uniform, roger. We are landing runway 5 this morning. Altimeter three zero zero seven, notify on a one mile left base for runway 5.”
I set the altimeter and answered, “Three zero zero seven, understand runway 5, and we’ll call a one mile left base. I’d like to then overfly the field and enter left traffic if possible.”
“Zero Charlie Uniform, roger, that will be approved.”
I asked if the emergency equipment was in place and the tower said it was.
Donaldson finally emerged out of the haze, and I called the tower when I was on about a one-mile left base.
“Cutlass Zero Charlie Uniform, you are in sight. Proceed as requested over the field, left or right traffic, pattern altitude eighteen hundred.”
I replied that we would make left traffic as we flew over the massive old military airfield. There was a mass of red equipment on a taxiway, with twinkling red lights flashing.
I asked the tower if the fire chief had a preference for gear-up or gear-down. I wanted to make sure we weren’t missing any information as to which would be safest.
“Zero Charlie Uniform, negative. That is going to be your decision as to whatever you believe is safest.”
As we turned downwind, the tower called on the radio.
“Cutlass November Two Zero Charlie Uniform, runway five, cleared to land, uh, as best you can.”
“Runway five, cleared to land. We’ll do our best, Zero Charlie Uniform,” I replied, adding a slightly nervous chuckle after I released the transmit button. I appreciated the tower controller’s quiet humor.
On downwind I began to pull the throttle back and eased the nose up to slow the plane and hold altitude. I ran the first pre-landing checklist:
“Gas, on both. Undercarriage, um, up. Mixture, rich. Prop, set. Seats and switches, secure and set.”
I looked at Tex and he nodded.
Abeam the touchdown point, I pulled the nose up farther and the airspeed decreased into flap operating range. I set ten degrees of flaps and the gear warning horn began to sing the song it would sing until we touched down.
HONK. HONK. HONK. HONK. HONK.
My brain tuned it out after a few seconds. I turned base, and ran another before landing checklist, this time pushing the propeller control forward.
Tex pulled out the emergency checklist and called out the gear-up landing procedure.
“Landing gear lever.”
“Up,” I answered.
“Gear circuit breakers.”
“Five, cleared to land.”
I moved the flap selector all the way down and answered, “Thirty.”
I nudged the nose down and adjusted the trim. “Airspeed Sixty-five.”
We both unlatched our doors. “Unlatched.”
The rest of the checklist would be done after touchdown. We agreed that when he heard scraping, Tex would turn off the master switch and pull the mixture control to the lean position.
I turned final and adjusted our descent so that the path indicator lights on the ground showed two red and two white lights, indicating that we were on the proper glide path. The airspeed indicator was right on 65 knots, and the engine thrummed confidently.
This was it.
“You ready? Seatbelt tight?” I asked.
“Yep. We got this.”
The runway loomed closer. I pulled the power to idle and pulled back on the controls.
I eased the plane as close as I dared to the runway and held it off for an eternity.
Finally, there was a tinking noise, then a light scraping noise.
I kept holding it off and had to fight the urge to press the brakes. There were no wheels, I reminded myself.
The light scraping turned into a violent scraping noise and the airplane began to slow very rapidly, as if someone were slamming on the brakes.
Knock, knock, knock, WHAM, WHAM, wham. The propeller smashed into the runway with surprising violence, then stopped.
The airplane came to rest. Tendrils of smoke drifted up from the floor.
I slid my seat back and unbuckled my seatbelt.
“Got everything else? You good?” I asked Tex.
“Yep,” he replied. I heard him flipping switches.
I pushed the door open and stooped under the wing, then jogged away from the plane.
A white SUV with flashing red lights pulled up and the window rolled down.
“You the pilot?”
I said I was.
“That was freaking awesome, buddy. Nice work. Ah’m Chief Boyce.”
He offered his hand and I shook it.
“Sorry for messing up your airport,” I said.
The chief shook his head, smiled broadly, and said, “Nah uh. If you’re going to have an emergency, we want you to bring it here.We are prepared and ready for this.”
Tex walked over and we all shook hands. He laughed and said, “I turned around to see if you were getting out OK, and you were already on the side of the runway.”
The firemen gave us cold water. The EMS personnel asked us if we were ok, and looked at us with concern in their eyes. We were fine, we assured them.
We helped the firemen disconnect the aircraft battery and secure the plane. The airport manager came out and congratulated me on a job well done.
Then he handed me his phone. It was the FAA.
A friendly voice asked if we were ok, and assured me that was all that mattered. She asked me to send her a statement as soon as I could.
The rest of the day eased past in kind of a happy haze. I wrote a statement for the FAA and my mind replayed the landing a thousand times, finally (and thankfully) stopping when my head hit the pillow that evening. I rested well, sure there was nothing I would have done differently.